Sharks ignite campaign with full house
It was a happy homecoming for the Sharks as they launched their home Vodacom Super Rugby campaign in fine style with a bonus-point 32-20 win over the MTN Lions at Mr Price Kings Park on Saturday evening.
After the frustration of two away defeats to local archrivals the Stormers and the Bulls, the Sharks needed maximum points to confirm their intent to challenge those two teams for control of the South African conference.
For much of the way it didn’t look like the Sharks would get a full house, but two tries within the last 10 minutes of the game clinched the bonus point and sealed a performance that showed patches of promise for Durban fans.
A driving-maul try from an attacking lineout to Jacques Botes off the last movement of the game ensured that the Sharks were able to pull level with the Waratahs on the overall log and suddenly their position on the log looks a lot more respectable.
But the Lions showed great attitude, and before that fourth Sharks try, the Lions were pressing for a score that could well have leveled the battle and forced a draw.
The Sharks' kicking game was spot-on throughout the match though, and it was a long-range kick into the Lions' 22-metre area that set up the lineout that provided them with the platform to strike for the fourth try.
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Both defences were strong when the teams ran at each other and it was one of those games where the tries mostly came off turnover ball or from mistakes in fielding the kicks.
When it came to forcing turnovers, Bismarck du Plessis’ ability to perform the role of auxiliary fetcher flank, with his strength in contesting the ball in the tackle, was massive for the hosts.
Indeed, although the Sharks’ lineout was again a bit shaky, Du Plessis appears in the past two weeks to have rediscovered the form that saw him regarded as the best hooker in the world before the decision was taken to play John Smit ahead of him in the Springbok team at the World Cup.
If Du Plessis’ rampaging presence did not earn him the man of the match award it must have taken him pretty close.
The Lions made it clear they were going to fight every inch of the way, and led 3-0 after five minutes after a penalty from Butch James as the Lions capitalised on the early pressure they created in driving at the Sharks’ line.
But then, with Willem Alberts making a successful return to the starting team, the Sharks forwards settled the hosts by getting into the game with their driving and the Lions were on the back foot for most of the match from around the quarter-hour mark onwards.
With a host of problems in the front row in recent times it was anticipated that the set scrums might be a problem for the Lions, but it didn’t work out that way. Their young scrum stood up well against a Sharks unit that is also depleted and which struggled last week in the closing minutes against the Stormers.
But it was the ability of the Sharks to mix up their attack, their kicking game that exposed the visiting back three and Du Plessis’ ability to be a complete pain to the Lions with his scavenging, that really hurt the Lions.
Patrick Lambie missed an early long-range penalty but then atoned with a good kick in the 21st minute to level the score, and was on target with every kick from then on until he missed the last conversion when it no longer mattered.
The Lions were already depleted and became even more so when inside centre Alwyn Hollenbach had to leave the field after 25 minutes with what looked like a hamstring twinge.
It was a disruption they didn’t need, though at least when Butch James moved to inside centre from flyhalf he was returning to the position where he had trained for most of the week.
And the loss of Hollenbach did give young Andries Coetzee a chance to come on and show that he has potential as a flyhalf at this level.
But it was the Sharks who were always the more efficient with both their kicking and the fielding of the kicks, and when fullback Riaan Viljoen launched an up and under, an untidy tap back from the Lions saw Viljoen in space and he had just the awkwardness of the rolling ball to contend with.
He followed it all the way to the unmanned corner and was able to pick up and comfortably dot down. Lambie’s angled conversion from the touchline made it 10-3 after 29 minutes.
It looked like still being a close game at halftime when James nailed another penalty, but then came a bit of Bismarck du Plessis magic as he seized on an untidy Lions tap at a lineout on the Lions' tryline and set in motion a thrilling cross-field attack that saw left wing Lwazi Mvovo diving over in spectacular fashion on the corner flag.
Lambie’s pinpoint boot made it 17-6 and with the hooter having already sounded the Sharks were able to go into the shed with morale sky high.
They made heavy weather of the third quarter, which many of their fans will say is nothing new, and although Lambie did stretch the lead to 14 points at one stage with another penalty, a turnover, this time in the Lions’ favour as Sharks flanker coughed up the ball, saw newcomer Coetzee set up an opportunity by running a good line before fullback Jaco Taute forced his way over near the posts.
It was the first try the Sharks had conceded in the Super Rugby season and the conversion meant that suddenly there were just seven points in it with 20 minutes to go.
The Sharks remained the most dangerous team on attack though, with the backs running onto the ball incisively and strongly, and they always looked promising when they employed the inside pass.
It was another turnover, during an exhausting end-to-end phase of play that saw both teams being turned over several times, that set up the Sharks’ third try in the 71st minute, a neat Du Plessis inside pass putting JP Pietersen into a gap as he scorched through up the middle of the field before transferring to replacement Meyer Bosman for the try.
The Sharks might have thought that was it, but they reckoned without the pluck of the Lions, who struck back immediately with a converted try to reserve prop Ruan Dreyer to bring the Lions back within range with six minutes remaining.
You always go the sense though that this was not going to be a day where the determined hosts were going to be denied.
Sharks – Tries: Riaan Viljoen, Lwazi Mvovo, Meyer Bosman, Jacques Botes. Conversions: Pat Lambie (3). Penalties: Lambie (2).
MTN Lions – Tries: Jaco Taute, Ruan Dreyer. Conversions: Butch James (2). Penalties: James (2).